If you’re a Cub Scout, there’s a yearly reckoning waiting for you — the Pinewood Derby — where you get to build your own race car out of wood and plastic and nails and race it down a track to see how fast your mind and hands are in the creation of something separate and spectacular that you cannot control. You build it and let it run away from you.  I had some success with the Pinewood Derby, as I share here:

As a Cub Scout in Lincoln, Nebraska David Boles entered, and won the Pinewood Derby. In 1973, igniting the fighting Fireball , he came in second place. In 1974, riding The Phantom, he did not place, likely due to the air-sucking quality of the jaw-like bat mouth. In 1975 — flying the Spirit of ’76 — he won First Place as the Grand Champion, even though race officials drilled out an ounce of golden lead weight from his undercarriage! Here are the requisite beauty shots of those historic racing fascinations.

The memories of my first year in the Fireball are both lonesome and loathsome.  Building the car was a sheer delight, but on race day there was mismanagement by those leading the event.  I won every heat and when it came down to the final race, I came in second to the other finalists’ race car.  Instead of giving me second place, I was given no trophy at all because I “lost” the final race and two other cards in separate heats that did not race in the final were given second and third place.  It was surreal to have an entire gang of fathers arguing with your single mother that you — and not the subgenius dwarf who was given my second place trophy — got nothing for losing the final, two-car, race-off.  I didn’t care much, really, because the dwarf who had the second place trophy was ecstatic, but my mother would not be denied, and weeks later, some sort of compromise was reached and I was “given” — not “awarded” — a second, second place, trophy that was specially made for me.  A hollow defeat!

After the Fireball season, I wasn’t much into competing in the next Pinewood Derby, so I decided to design the meanest looking car I could imagine without worrying about graphite or airspeed or other aerodynamic hydroplaning.  The effort won my inner day, but the car did nothing in competition.

My third, and final, Pinewood Derby in 1975 felt right and historic.  America was reeling high on itself and was slightly jingoistic in every aspect of life, and so I crafted a star-spilling — “The Spirit of ’76” — race car that, in the final analysis, would finally bring me the Grand Champion trophy.

My win was not uncontroversial, though, as you can see below, the “weighing in” of the car before the racing began lost me several ounces of precious lead weight to the race referee drill press.  It was a shocking display of hubris, theirs, not mine — since I was the only car that had more weight taken away than added.  My paint job was ruined! My aerodynamicism was thwarted, creating an inverted, drilled, funnel!  The other cars had pennies taped to their undercarriage to mysteriously bring them “up to weight” with no scale in the room.  Still, the proof of the winning was on the track, and my Spirit car could not be touched as it railed down that track with revenge in its heart and murder on its mind.

If you’d like to take a look at some larger images of my Pinewood Derby cars, you may view them online at the Prairie Voice archive located at Boles.com.


  1. Interesting, when I was a boy the pinewood derby was such a huge thing. My first entry creation was the Batmobile. It’s low lying aerodynamic design, guaranteed a win. What was curious was the second place winner hardly did anything to his car. He came from a very poor family. He completely built the car on his own with no help from his father. When the races first started it was hard for me to understand what was happening. His car was betting everyone else’s, I was heart broken. But my father took me aside and explained his situation. When he and I stood together with our cars to have our picture taken I understood he was the really winner. It was from this life lesson I learned that it not always about who comes in first, it’s about the heart of those participate.

    1. That’s a fine lesson and one that is lost on many. Competition can be a good thing when kept in perspective, but too often the only emphasis is placed on who wins and who loses.

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